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Bullshit jobs: late complexity in action

Image: Brad King

Anthropologist David Graeber is hardly the first person to notice that a lot of the jobs that have been created in the past couple of decades are largely meaningless:

“Everyone is familiar with the sort of jobs that don’t seem, to the outsider, really to do much of anything: HR consultants, communications coordinators, PR researchers, financial strategists, corporate lawyers or the sort of people who spend their time staffing committees that discuss the problem of unnecessary committees…”

Comedy duo David Mitchell and Robert Webb arrived at something similar with their Old Lady Job Justification Hearings in which an elderly couple interrogate people with bullshit jobs like PR people and wedding planners: roles that could disappear tomorrow without anybody noticing.

Graeber documents five types of bullshit jobs:

  • Flunkies, who are employed to make someone else look superior
  • Goons: people who are employed in aggressive roles to combat the effect of competing goons
  • Duct-tapers: people who are paid to fix problems that should never have arisen in the first place
  • Box-tickers, whose role is to make it appear that an organisation is meeting one or other goal or target
  • Taskmasters: people who order others to do what they would have done anyway; and people whose job entails the creation of bullshit jobs for others to perform.

Graeber gives an example from his own workplace:

“One day, the wall shelves in my office collapsed. This left books scattered all over the floor and a jagged, half-dislocated metal frame that once held the shelves in place dangling over my desk. I’m a professor of anthropology at a university. A carpenter appeared an hour later to inspect the damage, and announced gravely that, as there were books all over the floor, safety rules prevented him from entering the room or taking further action. I would have to stack the books and not touch anything else, whereupon he would return at the earliest available opportunity.

“The carpenter never reappeared. Each day, someone in the anthropology department would call, often multiple times, to ask about the fate of the carpenter, who always turned out to have something extremely pressing to do. By the time a week was out, it had become apparent that there was one man employed by buildings and grounds whose entire job it was to apologise for the fact that the carpenter hadn’t come. He seemed a nice man. Still, it’s hard to imagine he was particularly happy with his work life.”

Examples like these, however, beg the question of how such roles came to be created in the first place.  Graeber locates them in power differentials and social status – it makes the boss look good to have flunkies and powerful to have goons and taskmasters.  However, there may be a far more worrying reason for the rise of bullshit jobs… late complexity.

Complexity (not to be mistaken for complicated) is a term applied to any system made up of large numbers of independently functioning parts; each of which must operate in conjunction with the others to maintain the system itself.  A murmuration of starlings, for example, is complex but not complicated – the almost infinite patterns that flocks of starlings create can be produced using three simple rules – fly at the same speed as your neighbour, avoid colliding with your neighbour, always try to fly toward the centre of the flock.

Applied to a society, complexity is primarily concerned with the division of labour.  Whereas a simpler society might have hunters, gatherers and healers, a complex society has – among many other things – cattle ranchers, shepherds, organic framers, horticulturalists, veterinary surgeons, oncologists, psychiatrists and occupational therapists… and a host of university departments full of people to teach these specialisms.  It is the action of each of the individually functioning people carrying out these roles that comes together to generate the economy… “The hidden hand” in all of its glory.

All too often, the system does not function well.  Mistakes are made, crises arise and people adapt.  You might assume that the obvious way in which people would adapt to complex problems would be to simplify things.  However, as sociologist Joseph Tainter argues, complexity arises out of the solutions that people put in place to resolve prior systemic problems.  This happens irrespective of politics – it can result from private individuals making changes, from private organisations changing their operations, or from governments making and enforcing laws and regulations.  In every case, however, there are unintended consequences that demand even more complexity to fix them.

What Graeber refers to as bullshit jobs are, in effect, the social “string and brown paper” that has been used by governments and corporations to paper over the cracks that increasing complexity has generated.  Real problems, however, begin to accrue in periods of declining energy per capita.  Just as it requires excess energy to power the technologies that allow the division of labour that results in social complexity, so declining energy can cause complexity to rapidly collapse.

In the Western economies, energy per capita has been falling steadily since 1973.  This is not readily obvious because a small minority of the populations of the USA, EU and UK have enjoyed spectacular increases in per capita energy consumption.  However, almost all of this has gone into unproductive activities rather than those that might sustain or increase complexity.  In economic terms this manifests as the growing debt burden (essentially a claim on the future energy of society) to prop up mountainous asset bubbles that are doomed to implode once it becomes obvious that future generations are not going to be paying off that debt.

The very fact that so many workers can now clearly see that their jobs are  (in Graeber’s words): “a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence, even though, as part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case” tells us that we are in that Wile E. Coyote moment just before everything crashes to the ground.  Hence the growing interest in “sustainability” among individuals, organisations and governments alike.

As Tainter warns us, however, every collapsing civilisation that he studied was attempting to become more complex in order to sustain the civilisation that they had built.  But without the energy throughput required to support that complexity, all they achieved was to hasten their own demise.  We are unlikely to be any different.  Our problem is that we are about to lose complexity whether we like it or not because of the contemporary trilemma:

  • We can no longer operate the industrial economy without undermining the human habitat, but;
  • Scaling back our polluting activities will serve to crash an economic system that is already too indebted to avoid a collapse, and;
  • Depleted mineral and energy resources are already leaving us incapable of maintaining the complexity we have built anyway.

The arrival of bullshit jobs is not some sociological curiosity; it is an indication that we are well into the late stages of decline.  As energy depletes, an increasing number of us are going to find our current roles surplus to requirement.  As things that used to be done by machines either get done by hand or don’t get done at all, many more roles within the current division of labour will come to look like bullshit jobs that the economy as a whole neither wants nor can afford.

As you made it to the end…

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